A survey conducted by the University of Ghent revealed that nearly 90 percent of women in Brussels have been sexually harassed in public places.
Even more alarming, 30 percent of the survey respondents reported that they experience some form of harassment on a regular basis.
If you have experienced physical or verbal harassment, then you know the psychological and emotional trauma that it can cause. You may have learned to become extra vigilant and cautious when going to public places.
Unfortunately, there is no way to detect the presence of perverts or creeps in our surroundings. But there are some steps we can take to protect ourselves physically against any potential attacks.
1. Carry a backpack
In public places, the most vulnerable part of your body is your back since it is also your blind side. That makes your buttocks area easy to target.
A backpack can serve as a barrier to protect your backside from malicious hands.
Harassers take advantage of opportunities where they can have convenient or unhindered access to any part of your body so they can touch you in a way that looks accidental or unintentional.
The point of carrying a backpack is to make it inconvenient and taxing for potential harassers to target you since they will have to make an obvious extra effort to reach below your bag just to grab your buttocks.
A backpack can also be worn across the front of your body in situations where your frontal area is more vulnerable.
2. Strategic positioning
In crowded indoor situations that are critical, pick a spot where you can stand with your back against the wall or any physical structure such as tables.
For example, when boarding an elevator, stand close to any of the three walls if possible. Or if you’re waiting for the bus or the tram, stay within the bus stop shelter with your back to the wall.
3. Use your arms as shields
Crossing your arms in front of your chest is one way to fend off potential advances.
If you have to hold onto a vertical bar or a grab rail while riding a tram or bus crammed with passengers, then grip the support with both hands while keeping one arm slung across your chest.
Avoid reaching for the hanging rails in situations where you don’t feel safe. Extending the arm upward will leave your front exposed. Settle for the poles, and keep your arms as low and as close to your body as possible.
When standing in line with your back to a stranger, you can keep your hands behind your back for protection.
4. Plug your ears
Catcallers get a kick out of knowing that you can hear the lewd remarks they hurl at you. Their goal is to make you feel uncomfortable because that gives them a sense of power over you.
Wearing earphones or headphones will make you a less appealing target to harassers since their hisses and hoots will fall on deaf ears.
However, there are times when it is wiser to keep your ears open so you can stay alert and aware of your surroundings.
5. Use physical objects for protection
Reading a book or using your mobile phone is another way to place something between you and a potential harasser. Shoulder bags and tote bags can also be positioned in front of the body.
6. Aim your camera at them
Exhibitionists take pleasure in shocking or upsetting their victims. They get satisfaction out of making you uncomfortable.
Instead of recoiling from the situation, take out your camera, aim and shoot. Predators are more likely to get intimidated if their prey suddenly points a mobile camera at them. A photo or video can be used as evidence against them or a way to identify and track them down. It can also be uploaded and distributed online.
Digital tools against sexual harassment
If sexual harassment cannot be avoided or prevented despite preventive measures, the next step is to report the incident and seek assistance.
Digital tools are now making it possible for victims to report real-time situations and immediately signal for help.
— NextRide (@NextRideApp) November 15, 2017
One such tool is the anti-harassment number 0460 20 93 99 launched in November by Belgian startup NextRide. You can give it to any person who is pestering you for your phone number. Anyone who dials it will get a software-generated reprimand and warning against harassing people.
The service is currently in French, but it will be available in Dutch and English this year, according to NextRide founder Thomas Hermine.
This spring, Brussels will also have its own version of the anti-harassment mobile application HandsAway, which was first launched in France.
Victims can use the app to report incidents of physical or verbal harassment, including their location. The app sends alerts to other users in the area, so they can come to the rescue of the victim.
The best survival mechanism against sexual harassment is to stay vigilant in public places. It would be great to live in a world where we can go anywhere without worrying about the possibility of sexual advances and insults. But this is the reality we live in, a reality where anyone can fall prey to physical or verbal harassment through no fault of their own.
If you are a victim, remember that you are not alone in the trauma you are going through. The #MeToo movement has empowered countless women all over the world to speak up and stand up for themselves.
With the public’s growing awareness and acknowledgement of this pressing issue, society will hopefully find more means to provide support and assistance to victims and to combat the problem.